Teachers talk too much, right? It’s a problem. It is a proven fact that low-SES students have a similar attention span to flightless birds. They are literally emus. Yet, we also know that teachers often can’t seem to help themselves. I went to visit Reginald (Reggie) Grover, Grade 3 teacher at the International Elementary School in UA. He’s been working with the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™ to address the problem of teacher-talk and he’s got some advice.
1. Ask a student to time the teacher-talk
Reggie picks one of his students, Max, to time all sessions of teacher talk. After 5 minutes, the student rings a bell. Well actually, it’s not a real bell. That would be a waste. Conscious that modern students are digital natives, Reggie gets Max to ring a virtual bell on Max’s cellphone. Sometimes, Max replaces the bell with the sound of breaking-wind. Reggie smiles, “There’s gotta be a metaphor in there somewhere!”
2. Use shared gestures
Teachers can set this up any way they like. The important thing is that Reggie and his students all know what the gestures mean. When Reggie points at something and smiles then that means, “Great job guys! You’re on the right track!” If he points at something with his foot or one of his knees then the students know that this means, “You’re not necessarily wrong guys but you might just want to take five and have a think about that.”
“It works really well,” confirms Reggie, “especially when the students are looking at you.”
3. Build resilience, grit and mindsets
Sometimes, the bell rings and Reggie’s time is up before he has said what he planned. “It still happens,” sighs Reggie, “I can’t always quite make it!”
This leaves part of a task or activity unexplained. “This is where kids need grit, resilience and a mindset. After that bell goes off and I am caught mid-sentence then I think that this is exactly the experience that my students will have to struggle with in real-life.”
Reggie festoons his classroom wall with posters to motivate the students in these situations. One simply reads, “Don’t give up!” over a picture of a beach at sunset. Another celebrates making mistakes.
“Some kids have just naturally got the right mindset and others haven’t,” he explains.
4. Use relevant, authentic contexts
“I used to do things like read a class book and then ask the students to write about it,” says Reggie, “I remember doing Charlotte’s Web. The trouble is, it required a lot of explaining; characters, narrative arcs. And my students aren’t spiders. How could a story about spiders be relevant to them? How could it be authentic?”
This illustrates that asking students to complete tasks that they don’t already know how to do usually involves a lot of teacher talk.
“Now, I ask them to write to a prompt like ‘my perfect lunch’. They’re still writing but it’s much more relevant to them. They’ve written similar pieces many times before and so they hardly need my help at all. I don’t have to say or do anything. And that’s the ultimate goal for any teacher.”
5. Prepare your resources
Teacher talk can be reduced by having printed resources containing explanations, instructions and examples. Reggie suggests combining these ‘prompt sheets’ with any activities or questions you want the students to complete.
“In math, you can make up a sheet with instructions and examples on it with maybe some questions at the end. You can even get ahead of yourself and put a few of these together into something like a booklet. Publishers often produce these ready-made.”
Over to you
So are you ready to reduce teacher-talk in your classroom? Try Reggie’s tips and let us know how you get on!